Peter T. Chattaway: Now I don't know how you are with names and voices -- I know you're very good with faces -- but I don't know if you'd remember me. The last two times you came to SonFest, I was in the press scrum sort of thing there --
Steve Taylor: Oh, right.
PTC: -- and the first time you came to SonFest, a friend of mine and I talked to you for 15 minutes upstairs, there.
ST: Oh, right! Oh, cool. So both times, including the time when they had a limit on the sound so I could actually yell louder than the speakers were, is that right? Were you there this time?
PTC: A limit?
ST: No, they had, like, I don't know if you saw our set or not, but they had a sort of a limit on decibels. It was the only time I've ever done a concert where I could talk in a normal voice to, like, a guitar player next to me and have a casual conversation while it was going on, because it was so quiet! It will forever stand out in my memory.
PTC: Forever? [laughs] Okay. The first time you were at SonFest, your Now the Truth Can Be Told video hadn't come out yet, but I was asking you at the time about your student films, and you mentioned that the video was coming out, and I think I may have asked you about the film thing again the next time around, but now apparently you're actually going ahead with this. Squint Entertainment is gonna have film in its portfolio as well, and my angle is going to come mostly from there. So first of all, according to the press release, the film is going to be a "drama" --
ST: That's right.
PTC: -- and that seems like a bit of a departure.
ST: Yeah, right. I'm just hoping I'm not going into something that I have no business doing. And unfortunately, I can't tell you, really, anything about the story, because we haven't really set any details on it, we're still sort of finalizing the script, so as far as actual content goes, I won't be able to tell you a lot. The idea behind this was, I've been wanting to get involved in film on a larger scale than what I've done before, which was, beyond student films, music videos and a documentary in 1988 that I did on the Greenbelt festival, and the last thing that I did was an hour-long comedy on the Newsboys [Down Under the Big Top], and that was sort of the transitional step that I felt I needed to take before I was ready to bite off an entire indie film project. So, having finished that and gotten through it relatively unscathed, the time seemed right and I was able to find the backing to do it, since it was all part of this Squint Entertainment, so now it's put up or shut up, and the pressure's on. If I blow this opportunity, I don't see me ever working again.
ST: Nah, sorry, just kidding. Because it's just one of those things, y'know. It's, like, real money. It's not like doing a record. It's a big chunk of money and it's something where there's just a very real possibility for failure. You end up with something unwatchable. So, Lord willing, that won't happen, but I'm going into it certainly wanting to have all my bases covered.
PTC: Are you still planning on beginning principal photography in April?
ST: Yeah, right.
PTC: Talking about budgets and things, the budget I saw in the press release mentioned a budget of about a million dollars.
ST: Yeah, right, which of course is not a lot of money for a film. It's a drop in the bucket for a Hollywood film, but for an independent film, that's a reasonable budget, it's not a lot.
PTC: I was going to say that, recently, there have been hits like Chasing Amy which was made for, like, $300,000 --
PTC: -- so, depending on what you're doing, one could argue that it needn't even be that much.
ST: Well, the story's fairly complicated and requires a higher degree of production design and art direction than most indie projects, so we'll be squeezing every dime that we can out of the budget.
PTC: Hmmm. I suppose I can't ask what sort of story it is --
ST: [laughs] Right.
PTC: -- but what's your target audience, shall we say? Maybe we can approach it sort of eliptically, like that. For example, is this going to be made for theatres, or is this going to be -- The Newsboys thing was very obviously a video effort, with the rewind thing and all that, but is this film going to be designed for theatres, the festival circuit, what?
ST: Yeah, the idea is that it would be a theatrical release and we'd do it on, ideally, a platform release. And of course you never know how that's gonna go until the film is done, but certainly the intent is that the film would have a theatrical release akin to independent movies. It's not like a Hollywood roll-out where it plays 1500 theatres the opening weekend. We'd start in major cities and hope, if it catches steam, it would carry on.
PTC: So you're looking at a release in -- heh, not that there are many Christian theatres --
ST: Not to my knowledge.
PTC: -- so you are looking at a wide, mainstream quote-unquote release? It is independent, but by "mainstream", you know what I mean by that, right?
ST: Right. To my knowledge, there is no Christian movie circuit or anything like that, apart from those movies that are made specifically for Sunday nights at churches, so that's part of the challenge. It has to appeal to a reasonably wide audience if it has any hope of making its money back, and believe me, if it doesn't make its money back, I won't be working, it'll make it very difficult to do the second one, so I'm fully aware of the financial pressures involved too. And it would, in fact, be wrong of me to go in and make a movie that I didn't think had any chance of making its money back. It would be just the wrong thing to do.
PTC: I was going to ask if this was the first step towards creating -- You know how there's this sort of parallel Christian music industry that existed on its own for twenty years or so and now, suddenly, y'know, Columbia House now has "Christian Rock/Alternative" and "Contemporary Christian" as two new categories when you sign up now --
ST: Right, right. [laughs]
PTC: -- but, y'know, there is this parallel Christian music industry, and I was going to ask if this was part of an attempt to make a parallel Christian film industry, or --
ST: Yeah, well, in many ways, the Christian music business ended up existing, I believe, because in large part the pop music business wasn't interested and didn't necessarily want it, and it's only now when they see that there's money to be made that they got interested again. I wouldn't want to create something that started its own subculture or that paralleled the Christian music side of things, because I don't believe any of us got what we necessarily wanted out of that. We don't want our records to be automatically categorized so that a majority of the population won't even listen to it because they think they already know what it's about, and it's the same thing with the film. The reason I want to do this and the reason my backers want me to do this is because we want to make art that speaks the gospel to the culture at large, and in order to do that, we've got to make really good art, and anyways that's the mission of Squint as a whole. It's our belief that if we're making really good art, that that will transcend categories. So, yeah, I'm not trying to, with this film, create a distinct Christian film industry by any means.
PTC: One film that came out a year ago was The Spitfire Grill. It was financed by a Catholic agency, although the writer/director was Jewish, and they weren't trying to get the gospel quote-unquote out there, but basicly I believe their approach was, As long as it's redemptive that's enough. How would you get the gospel into the mainstream culture while keeping it accessible enough that you could make your million dollars back?
ST: Right. Well, I thought that was a great movie, and the other footsteps we're following in are movies going back to Chariots of Fire and The Mission and even, more recently, Dead Man Walking. It's a very tricky path to walk, because you want movies that are redemptive, and on the other hand, they can't become trapped. This is getting into a pretty heady discussion, but let me put my toe in the water and see if this makes sense. I believe one of the difficulties of portraying even a Christian conversion in film is because of this dramatic concept called deus ex machina, which translates "God by the machine", and it goes back to the Greek plays -- we know about the good Greek playwrights, but there were also a lot more that were really bad that you never hear of any more, and they would apply this concept of deus ex machina, that all the players on the stage would get into all these different troubles, and instead of those troubles being solved in a dramatic fashion, literally the gods would step out on the platform above the stage and be lowered down on the stage and they would sort everything out. And of course that's a very unsatisfying way to end any sort of drama, and that's why you don't hear from those guys any more, and in the same way, it's difficult dramatically to portray a conversion experience, because literally God comes and sorts things out, right? And that can be very unsatisfying in a drama, even though we believe in that as Christians, it's not something that you watch in a drama unless it's handled particularly well, and I can't think of any time that I've seen it handled particularly well.
PTC: Well, if I can interject, I know that one of my longstanding complaints about Billy Graham movies is that they always -- it's almost like fairytales, they end with a wedding -- and they end with the altar call, but the real challenge is not -- well, I'm still single, so maybe my challenge is getting married, but there is the marriage beyond that, and a more valuable film arguably might be one in which the conversion doesn't happen at the end. The Mission, actually --
ST: You know what? The Mission, I was going to say that's the one film that I think did that well, and like you were saying, it happened earlier than later, because you then saw what that meant in this person's life. So I think that's a really good point.
PTC: And the struggles that come after that.
ST: That's right. And even in The Mission, it was portrayed in dramatic terms. This guy gets weighted down with all the accoutrements of war that he's been waging on these natives, and after he's carried it up this mountain, a native pulls a knife out, and you think the native's gonna kill him, but instead he cuts off all these swords and shields that he's been carrying, and it's extremely powerful, but it's also extremely dramatic.
PTC: And it didn't end there.
ST: No, it didn't end there. So, I mean, our first responsibility, when you walk out of a film, the thing you most want to hear is, "What a great story." So we have to be primarily storytellers, and that's one of the reasons why various Bible stories have made for interesting films, because they're stories. They're interesting dramatic events that unfold, and that's what we have to be about as Christians making movies, is to tell interesting stories first, and that's how we pull people in and that's how we get their attention.
PTC: One question: You're focusing on the story, but I did read one quote in the CCM story from Myrrh V.P. Jim Chaffee, who said, "With film, in one clean stroke, you allow the music we created to be exposed to a huge audience." Now, I don't know where he's coming from, but that one quote sounds like film would become -- um, it's almost a movies-from-the-soundtrack thing, it would become a way of selling the music --
ST: Right. [laughs] Well, when he said that, I looked at him like, "Sorry, what was that again?" I'm not entirely sure what he meant by that, either.
PTC: Well, what role would music play in your film? Would you be composing your own music, or would you hire someone?
ST: It would always play a supporting role, because any time you leave a movie and you say "great music" or "great cinematography" or "loved the acting", I think you're missing the point. The only real response you want is "what a great story." But on the other hand, good music can certainly be an asset to a well-told story. On this first film, I'll be responsible for the music and my next album will be tied in, whether it's the actual soundtrack or tied in with that remains to be seen, but that's the idea.
PTC: Would you have other artists on the soundtrack?
ST: Not necessarily. It's possible, but it would just depend on how things played out. When I read that quote, I sort of winced too, because I certainly don't have any mandate to make sure that we get a bunch of Christian artists on the soundtrack or something like that, although on the other hand I would like nothing better than to feature artists that I believe are underexposed or [under]appreciated to a wider audience. And that's part of our mandate as a company.
PTC: You mentioned backers earlier. Who is backing the project?
ST: Word and their parent company, Idea Entertainment.
PTC: Solely them?
ST: That's right.
PTC: Have you been talking to any actors or agents?
ST: I haven't yet. I've got a couple of the roles already decided on, but not until we have the script totally done will they shoot it off to some different actors. It will probably be one of those things that they'll have to do for scale as a labour of love, because they don't have the money to pay Hollywood salaries.
PTC: Okay. But are you going to quote-unquote professional actors, or are you making a point of going to Christian actors, or what?
ST: Just whoever can do the job. That's the trick of it --
PTC: I mean, you've worked with non-Christian producers before, so --
ST: Yeah. It wouldn't be fair to say that I immediately go for the best person for the job. I try to keep as tight a creative community as possible, and I prefer working with talented Christians, number one because we sort of share the same backstop, and there's an extra level of trust there, and three, I like working with people over the long term, which is why I've worked with Ben Pearson, who's co-produced and done cinematography on all the work that I've done, going back to Movies from the Soundtrack, and typically if there are actors who are Christians in the area, I love working with them, and I've worked with some really talented ones too. But even on the Newsboys project, that was a mix, just because the talent pool is limited, and it's not just limited by who are Christians but also by, just in Nashville, there's a very limited pool of actors anyway. I ended up on that one with a lot of professional wrestlers, or former professional wrestlers. [laughs]
PTC: Oh really?
ST: Yeah, it just sort of happened that way. So on this project, we would most likely be casting in New York and L.A.
PTC: Okay. What are your favorite films or directors, if you have any. I assume that you do, but I could be wrong. Who are you drawing inspiration from?
ST: Well, uh, I don't know if I've been asked that question before, and I don't really want to get into trouble. [laughs]
PTC: Oh, feel free. You've mentioned the Clash and Kurt Cobain before [when citing musical influences].
ST: Right, right. I mean, I really like the Coen brothers, and I really like -- I don't want to sound too pretentious or anything, but when I was going to school, I was actually learning in college, my first teacher was really an avant-garde filmmaker --
PTC: Name of?
ST: He was a student of Stan Brakhage, so the first things we were seeing were, like, Stan Brakhage films and Maya Deren films, and certainly going all the way back to Cocteau and people like that. I probably appreciated it more than I would say I liked it. And some favorites would be, like, the Italian director Vittorio De Sica --
PTC: Oh, wait a second. He did The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, didn't he?
PTC: I just saw that last night.
ST: Was it good?
ST: I haven't seen that one. I like The Bicycle Thief and Umberto D, and a couple of other great ones. And that's about it. Probably my hero in all this is the producer David Puttnam, and I've read as much as I can get my hands on about him, because he looks at filmmaking as a -- He just takes responsibility for his work. He's not a guy who's, "I'm an artist, and the chips fall where they may." He really tries to make sure that what he's doing is ultimately edifying to the human race, instead of tearing it down, appealing to our better instincts instead of our worst. The illustration he uses is he produced Midnight Express, and there's a scene in that movie where the main character bites the ear off a guard or something, and when they were doing it, he thought this would be a real heavy, cathartic moment for the audience and sort of take their breath away, and he went to a theatre to see a showing and was shocked to find that people cheered when this guy bit the guard's ear off, and he writes that that was a very watershed sort of moment for him, because that wasn't his intention at all, and most directors -- I'm thinking of Oliver Stone in particular [laughs] -- would say, "So what? That's not my responsibility." And Puttnam wouldn't take the easy way out. He felt like he has a responsiblity to humanity and to the artform, and vowed that he would never let something like that happen again. And if you see the films that he's been involved with since that time, he's certainly stayed true to his word. His body of work speaks very well for him. You'd probably have to go back to someone like Frank Capra to find someone who had such a consistently strong and uplifting body of work.
PTC: Okay, I guess a couple of questions stretching out a bit beyond film, then. Your company's going to be handling music and multimedia as well?
ST: That's right, our first release is going to be the new Sixpence None the Richer record.
PTC: That's right, with five more, I think, slated between now and next year?
ST: That's right.
PTC: Would the fifth be your own album?
ST: One of them would, presumably, if I ever get it finished. [laughs] Yeah, I don't want to rush these things, I'm on sort of a three-year plan on my next record.
PTC: So has anyone started making Dreamworks comparisons?
ST: Um, no, not unless they were sort of self-inflicted. If you want to make that comparison, sure. [laughs] Everything's obviously on a small scale, but at the same time, one of my complaints certainly with the record business and with the film business is that, not only is a lot of money wasted, but -- but there's a lot of money wasted. I think that maybe where the comparison is valid is that one of the guys on our staff, Jonathan Richter, did the 'Cash Cow' video and animated it and he's going to be working on this new film, on production design and possibly some other areas, and he's got a great background in high-end web design and multimedia. So we're hoping to have a significant presence there. (Listen to me, I sound like some suit.) And we're hoping to do really good work in those areas, too.
PTC: Actually, one other film question: The CCM story mentioned that you had a ten-page marketing plan for the film, and it said another marketing plan has been devised for the Christian community. Have you got two marketing plans?
ST: Yeah, I'm trying to think of what that was referring to. The idea was, in putting the film together, more than anything, I wanted people to know that I wasn't doing this because I thought that I had a God-given right to make movies and they needed to support it. I wanted them to realize that I realize the financial responsibility that I bear in doing something like this, and that in fact we have thought through how we're going to put the movie out, how we're going to start getting the word out, and all the different components that go into marketing the film before anyone's actually seen it, and then through the platform release and through the video release and how we would use different gatherings and festivals and things like that to try to get the word out. I believe -- it's my fervent hope -- that a number of Christians will support it, just because they believe in the idea, and since the number of Christians actually making films is quite miniscule right now, but all of us recognize that this is an area we need to be in, hopefully there will be a groundswell of support if it's good. I don't expect anybody to come and see it if it's no good, and I think I have to keep stressing, too, that everything I say should be taken with a grain of salt until the movie's actually done, before you see if it's any good or not, because until then I'm just a guy full of hot air. The proof is in the viewing.
PTC: Oh, one more question: One of the things that frequently happens when Christians look at pop culture and analyze it and that sort of thing, they tend to speak of films that are okay for seeing as being "family films", or suitable for families, as though a Christian could only go to a film that a twelve-year-old could see, and I'm just curious -- as a subset of asking how you're going to be targetting a film, are you going to be keeping it a G or PG film, or could it conceivably be a PG-13 film. Billy Graham actually put out a PG-13 film [Caught] once; it had drugs in it, so it was automatically a PG-13. But are you making a "family" film, or should people be more discerning?
ST: Right. First of all, I'm really into the idea of family films, so I'm a great supporter of the concept. This would not, per se, be a family film, but it certainly wouldn't be an R-rated film either. It would probably be either a PG or PG-13. But it's not being made for kids. It's not like a Disney film, but then that doesn't mean anything any more, does it?
PTC: Is it a date movie?
ST: Yeah, I don't know. It's the feel-good buddy-cop movie of the summer, that's what it is. No, just kidding. I don't know if that answered your question, but I guess that told you what it's not. It's gotta be a really fun interview, huh? Now you've got the story!
© 1997-2001 Peter T. Chattaway
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